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Seattle ACORN Workers Strike for Recognition, Fair Play

Industrial Worker, April 2001

Field organizers struck the Washington state ACORN office Feb. 26, after manager Doug Bloch refused to recognize the IWW as their union or to address several long-standing grievances. The strike is still underway at press time, with Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now management refusing even to discuss the strikers offer to return to work pending a NLRB union representation election.

On the morning of February 26th, the field organizers of the Washington ACORN office, along with 30 supporters from the ACORN membership and the IWW in Seattle, handed manager Doug Bloch authorization cards signed by five out of six workers and demanded recognition of the IWW as their union and immediate resolution of a list of grievances. Bloch refused to recognize the union even after being told that the workers were prepared to strike. In response, the office was shut down and pickets began at both entrances to the building.

The demands included union recognition, paychecks issued on time and in full, a policy on sexual harassment and discrimination, a 40-hour work week, health care, safety policies, lunch breaks, and that no one gets fired for union activity.

Workers had been working for as long as 40 days without paychecks, and when they finally were paid the checks were up to $500 short. One worker who had been employed for over a month, had never been paid and at press time has yet to receive her wages. Another worker had been sexually assaulted on a house call, and even the scant health care coverage offered after three months of employment had not been activated for a third worker after being there for six months. Working conditions in general mirrored the problems that sparked the IWW union drive in Philadelphia, and violations of labor laws seem to be part of ACORN national employee policy.

After about an hour of picketing, the employer approached the workers and asked if he could address their concerns. Picketing ceased while workers gave management another opportunity to recognize the union. Instead, Bloch parroted the line that had been given to the Philly workers: that the bargaining unit must be all of the workers coast to coast, and that it would be illegal to recognize the union. Seeing that Bloch was merely stalling, and after he began to interrogate one worker, the workers continued the strike.

A third opportunity to recognize the union was rejected when workers and supporters halted the strike again and occupied the office. When an ACORN member asked Bloch if he would rather see the ACORN office wither away rather than recognize the union; he replied yes.

After hearing what was effectively a threat to close the office in response to organizing, the workers hit the picket line again. When the sixth worker, a bookkeeper, came to work that afternoon she refused to cross the picket line, making the strike 100 percent solid. Initially, workers were optimistic that union recognition would be granted by the end of the day. It would not be long before management showed that they are willing to not only violate ACORN's own People's Platform concerning the right to organize, but also that they are willing to rival the corporations in their tactics and attitudes toward unions. A strike that workers thought might last a day or two stretched out to a week, then two weeks, while the employer gutted and closed the office and recruited scabs from the Portland office. Bloch had underestimated the tenacity of The ACORN 5, the name the workers have chosen for themselves, and the willingness of them to force the issue of union recognition.

At press time, the workers have filed for a NLRB election and issued letters offering an unconditional return to work to avert the continued hiring of scabs and to regain some direct control on the job; however the employer has yet to respond, signaling a possible lockout. Doug Bloch faxed spurious charges to the NLRB in Seattle from the Portland ACORN office in response, and is attempting to delay the election process. It is looking as though ACORN membership dues and non-profit foundation grants are now being used to pay management to bust unions instead of supporting low-income workers efforts to organize for better conditions, and that Wade Rathke, national Chief Organizer (and SEIU International vice president), supports this position.

ACORN members show support

One of the tactics management has been using to discourage organizing is to play the members of ACORN in the community against the field organizers. This divide-and-conquer strategy was undercut in Seattle by organizing a boycott. In the process of just a few days, 135 letters from members were signed saying that they would cancel their financial contribution if the union was not recognized. Members were not only present during the initial walkout, but have also been walking the picket line and speaking at rallies in support of the strike.

It has been easy to point out the connection between ACORN supporting unions in general and supporting one in house in particular, since most ACORN members work under similar working conditions as ACORN workers. ACORN managers have failed miserably in their frenzied attempts to recruit membership support for their union-busting.

AFL-CIO unions show support

On the first day of the strike, members of various AFL-CIO unions visited the picket line. Washington ACORN rents office space from local #28 of the American Postal Workers Union, and naturally the usual banning of strikers from the property never materialized. APWU president Jeff Mansfield signed a letter to the employer, stating that management's refusal to recognize the union and the bringing in of scab replacements is offensive to the labor movement and disgraceful for an organization that claims to fight for the rights or working people. The Greater Seattle Area Local of the APWU, AFL/CIO stands in solidarity with the striking workers. Members from the Joint Council of Carpenters, Ironworkers Local 86, the Boilermakers, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have dropped by to show support for the strikers. Letters of support were also issued by a member of SEIU 1199 in Wisconsin, AFSCME, Out Front Labor Coalition, and Portland Jobs With Justice.

On March 7, the ACORN 5 met with the executive board of the King County Labor Council to ask for an endorsement. After their presentation, Norma Kelsey, president of Local 8 of OPEIU, offered to sponsor a motion to the delegates council to endorse the strike. Local 8 two years ago had borne the brunt of a union-busting campaign by El Centro De La Raza (another progressive non-profit in Seattle). Doug Bloch had also been invited to give management's side of things, and was promptly laughed out of the Labor Temple. At the delegates meeting, the endorsement passed unanimously and with a standing ovation for the strikers.

With unanimous support of labor in Seattle, ACORN membership support, supportive press clippings in both weekly papers, and 100 percent solidarity from the workers, you would think that Mr. Bloch would either resign or recognize the union. While the strikers remain committed to the ACORN cause, they now recognize that a union is necessary to ensure that ACORN's principles are applied to its own staff.

Discontent amongst the ACORN workers continues to manifest itself in organizing across the country, and union-busting is following accordingly. If the entire organization collapses under the weight of this conflict, the responsibility will rest on the management and the national hierarchy for not simply saying, yes, we will recognize the union. Will members and non-profits give money to an organization that fights unions and violates worker's most basic rights?